Words: Catherine Black
It’s been two years since Brian Green opened Victoria Yards in Lorentzville on the eastern edge of Joburg’s CBD, and about 18 months since they housed their first tenant. From a derelict cluster of buildings, Green has reinvented the space into a thriving ecosystem of artists and artisans, and a platform from which to engage with the surrounding community.
His original vision as he puts it, was “food security and artisanal studios, heading towards an educational output”. Today, Victoria Yards houses 50 artists and artisans in an urban development of workshops, studios and galleries. It also hosts an urban agriculture project, which means job creation and income generation through the produce that’s grown and sold. The Yards are open to the public every day, and there’s a brewery, coffee roastery and bakery, and fish and chips shop on site. #FirstSundays happen on the first Sunday of every month, where artists’ studios open to the public in a showcase of galleries, fashion, craft food and drinks, and more.
While a large part of Green’s vision was also to engage with the surrounding community through skills transfer and development, making this a reality has been more of a challenge than he anticipated. “I was naive in thinking we could just shake hands with people in the street and say come and get involved,” says Brian. Rather, he says that integrating with the community takes serious drive and a certain kind of professional person to make it happen. It’s these individuals that they’re now starting to engage with to do just that. One example is VY Commons, run by Simon Mason and Tumi Moroeng, who are engaging with local artists, artisans and entrepreneurs, creating forums and meeting places to help them get their products to market, and then interacting with the local community and offering upskilling opportunities to them through employment. Then there’s the River Project, spearheaded by Romy Stander, which focuses on rejuvenating the nearby Jukskei River. The aim is to eventually be able to use the water for irrigation purposes (among others), as well as to create safe passages and pathways to the river.
In many ways, Brian’s vision for Victoria Yards has been surpassed thanks to the overwhelming response from the public about it. It’s also become something that’s spilled out of the physical borders of the development. “While Victoria Yards has a certain gravitational pull in that people like to meet there, it’s really only the catalyst to activate all these surrounding community initiatives that were already simmering,” he says.